Thursday, September 29, 2016

Saying Farewell to A Pastime

For those of you who haven't heard, tomorrow marks the last day of the Facebook game "Marvel: Avengers Alliance", which started out as a turn-based tie-in to the 2012 'Avengers' film and just sort of kept going for four years and 166 playable characters. It wasn't a perfect game--it was a Flash game and prone to bugs and balance issues just like many others, and it had its grindy elements just like pretty much any game that tries to get you to log in every day and play it as much as possible does.

But it had some amazing virtues. It had a character roster that hit just just the classic Marvel characters like Spider-Man and Thor and the Hulk, but quirky and offbeat cult favorites like Howard the Duck and Daimon Hellstrom. It introduced players to new heroes like the Blue Marvel and Faiza Hussain, spotlighted obscure heroes like Phyla-Vell and Cloak and Dagger, and even allowed you to redeem a variety of villains from Magneto to Ronan the Accuser and put them to work in the service of humanity. It allowed for a dizzying array of team-ups and crossovers, and was every Marvel fan's dream in a lot of ways.

And the gameplay, while simple, was not without its depths. The different characters each had their own mechanics and special abilities, and figuring out how to combine them could produce synergistic effects that made them amazingly powerful. (Drax, for example, was lethal but withered quickly under direct assault, while Groot was a walking shield wall that took the hits for his team mates. The two made a devastating pair.) Combine that with a variety of different game situations that mandated or prohibited specific characters and you had a recipe for constant reinvention and adaptation to the different enemies the game threw at you.

I've been playing the game in one form or another for about three years now, pretty much ever since 'City of Heroes' went the way of all things. It got me through my grieving period for that game, in a lot of ways. Now I have to grieve this one. I guess that's the problem with games that offer you an infinite number of possibilities and a sweeping array of things to do. In the end, it just means that your interest in the game outlives it instead of the other way around.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Has Whedon Changed, Or Have We Done Changed?

Of late, I think it's safe to say that there's been something of a fan backlash against Joss Whedon. His last work of note was 'Avengers 2: Age of Ultron', after which he more or less quit doing big studio movies in despair and hasn't had a major project since. Meaning that to some extent, he's been judged by 'Age of Ultron', which...

Okay, let's get this out of the way. I liked 'Age of Ultron'. I know the criticisms against it and they're not without merit, but I do think that they are sometimes overemphasized in relation to the film's virtues. Whedon had a murderously tricky balancing act to pull off--making a movie that was simultaneously the beginning of Tony Stark's big hubris arc while still making him relatable, advancing the metaplot of the Infinity Stones while still making a movie about Ultron, advancing the stories of Black Widow, Hulk and Hawkeye who aren't getting features of their own for internal studio-politics related-reasons that are pretty much why he quit in despair, introducing Vision, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, setting up Wakanda for future films, and oh by the way rebutting 'Man of Steel' and Zack Snyder's dystopian Objectivist vision of superheroism. The fact that he made a film that was watchable is, I think, something of an achievement even if I can also agree with the people who have specific and legitimate complaints about it.

There. Now as I was saying, he's been judged to some extent by 'Age of Ultron'...but I also think that we're beginning to see the first reappraisal of Whdeon's overall body of work as we get a bit of distance and perspective from it. And some of the things that people are seeing are things they're not happy about. For the first time, Joss Whedon is being viewed not as "the feminist writer guy", but as "the problematic writer guy". So what's changed?

I don't think that Whdeon himself has changed. I think he has always been a committed ally to feminism, but I think he's also, like a lot of guys who see themselves as committed allies to feminism, not really used to having to adjust to the fact that a committed male ally to feminism is playing a supporting role and not being a star. It's difficult, I think, for him to accept the fact that as a major Hollywood writer/director/producer, he is fundamentally sucking up some of the oxygen in the room away from feminism no matter how hard he tries to do otherwise simply because his voice is so much louder than that of the women he's ostensibly supporting. I think we've seen this overtly a few times when he's gotten into verbal dust-ups and been very upset that his "feminist cred" was being challenged by women--surely he'd done the work by now, right? Surely he would get the benefit of the doubt?

He doesn't and shouldn't. As much as I can say that I understand what he was getting at with the Black Widow scene in 'Age of Ultron', I can also say that I fully understand why a lot of people thought he failed at conveying what he was trying to say and failed in ways that reaffirmed some very sexist tropes in fiction. He does not get a "feminist pass" on those things, and he shouldn't behave as though he's earned one. And I can understand as well how that issue and his response to it has made him lose a lot of trust from feminists in the forefront of the discussion, even though he's said he'd like to try to write a story that would make amends for it. Because...

Well, honestly, because even if you ignore some of his recent tantrums over being called on his feminist credibility, it's still worth reappraising his work in the light of a good decade or so of distance. It's okay to say that while 'Buffy' and 'Angel' were very progressive for 1997 when they started, or even for 2004 when they left the air, that they're not that progressive for now and it's okay to examine them from the point of view of here and now and say that Tara getting killed off was a major example of a very unpleasant and homophobic trope that LGBTQ fans have gotten thoroughly sick of, or that killing off Charisma Carpenter's character because the actress got pregnant was shockingly petty and sexist, or that while we got some big moments of Buffy throwing off the shackles of the patriarchy over the years, we also got a whole season of her screwing up the basic functions of adult life so badly that her father figure had to come back and help her put her life in order.

And that Mal Reynolds is a misogynist jackass to Inara whose lack of respect for her is palpable in every scene between them, despite the chemistry the two actors had together, and that had the series gone another season we would have probably gotten the most profoundly horrible sexist episode of a Whedon series ever. (If you don't know about this one, be kind of glad. It doesn't get much better when you describe it in detail.)

Oh yes, and that in pretty much all his series he describes "physical strength" with agency and romanticizes abusive relationships. The point is, while Whdeon was progressive for the 90s, it's okay to say that it's not the 90s anymore (yes, I feel old too!) and we expect more from creators than just "look, there's a female protagonist here who's not the damsel in distress!" It's okay to say that looking back, these series seemed great to us because we were getting so little from our media in terms of representation that just having a lesbian couple who were openly in a relationship for a full two seasons was ground-breaking. It's okay to say that even though we respect Whedon's efforts to shift the conversation forward, he's not a flawless saint and he can be criticized without tearing down the entire edifice of feminism. It's okay to say that he's a feminist and that he's problematic. You can be both things at once. Lord knows that as a white dude myself, I've probably fallen into that trap more than a few times.

Joss Whedon has not become less feminist. He is still who he always was. But it's okay to want more than that now.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

My One Concession to Donald Trump

Having now officially heard more out of Donald Trump's mouth than I think I ever want to in this lifetime, I'm willing to concede one important point that he's been hammering on for the past...oh dear god it's been almost a year will this endless stream of verbal diarrhea never CEASE?

(It's not the one about the Mexicans.)

Donald Trump has been saying, almost from the beginning, that he's fighting a "rigged system". And after watching him in action, I'm willing to say that yes, absolutely. The system is rigged in such a way as to make it harder for liars, fraudsters, crooks, cheats, con artists and swindlers to get into a position where they have the power to siphon off vast amounts of public money for their personal aggrandizement, and to use the bully pulpit of running for office to steal money from American citizens under the guise of "soliciting political donations." We make it hard for people to do that. Entirely on purpose.

(Clearly we haven't made it hard enough, because Trump, but that's another conversation.)

Basically, yes. The system is rigged against Donald Trump. The system was also rigged against Bernie Madoff. The only difference is that Donald Trump is better at getting around rigged systems than Madoff was.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Review: The Fog

This is not a review of the 1978 film 'The Fog', directed by John Carpenter and starring Adrienne Barbeau and Jamie Lee Curtis. This also isn't a review of the 2005 remake starring Superboy and a bunch of other people who singularly failed to make an impression on my memory, probably because they weren't rocketed from the distant planet of Krypton. No, this is a review of Dennis Etchison's novelization of the '78 movie, which I picked up in a used bookstore because I saw Dennis Etchison's name on the cover and I wanted to see a bit of what he was about.

And look, there's no question that he gives it his all. He cranks up his descriptions of glowing fog to eleven with phrases like "the reptilian swishing of the cloud as it withdrew", and "It gathered in a cold boiling on the ground and grew amoebalike pseudopodia in glutinous chains" and "The fog contracted, strengthening its substance, and expanded again, solidifying an ectoplasmic net". This is a man who has realized that his brief is to make his reader buy into the idea of 'scary fog', and is determined to make the best of it.

The problem is that basically, this isn't a 'scary fog' story, despite the title being 'The Fog' and there being much made of 'scary fog' in pretty much every scene in the first three-quarters of the book. This is a zombie story. It's a zombie story that tries to make its zombies cooler by hiding them in scary fog, and cooler still by making them pirate zombies (well, technically they're independently wealthy leper sailor zombies, but the iconography is all piratical, so hell with it), but still, this is basically a movie where vengeful undead hunt and kill people. All the 'scary fog' stuff is just window dressing for boring old zombies that don't even really do any of the cool stuff that zombies do like eat brains or bring their victims back to life as more zombies.

(Which they could very easily have done! If they were actually pirate zombies instead of merely independently wealthy leper sailor zombies, then they could have a ship of the dead, and anyone they kill is damned to join their crew for all eternity. I mean, it would get a little crowded on board, but it's a spectral ship of the damned, so maybe it's got TARDIS-like insides that can hold a lot of people. Or maybe if you kill enough people to take your place, you're free, so there's constant crew rotation. The point is, the whole "actually really nice people in life who are just miffed about their totally unjustified murder a hundred years ago and are revenging themselves on the descendants of their murderers" thing is really only scary if you happen to be the descendant of a treacherous murderer who used stolen gold to make your family rich. And also that ghostly pirate ships are way cooler than scary fog.)

In the end, Etchison more or less manages to cover most of the weaknesses in the basic structure of the movie the same way that Carpenter did with the film version, through copious amounts of atmosphere both literal and figurative (see what I did there?) Honestly, that's probably the reason the 2005 remake made so little impression--without amazing people elevating the material, there's really not much there. Even with Etchison's prose, it's not great. But it's not terrible, it's short and there are worse ways to pass the time.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Review: I Drink For A Reason

Wow, was that bad. I mean, it was really astonishingly terrible. Hacky, smug, lazy, unfunny, frequently cruel, and the kind of thing any comedian should have been ashamed of, let alone someone like David Cross who's genuinely got a claim to being one of the most groundbreaking comedians of his generation. This is so bad that I spent a good portion of the book trying to determine whether this was actually some kind of fourth-dimensional meta-satire of the flaws of terrible pretentious faux-intellectual comedians, but after a while it became clear that no, David Cross just crapped out a book to fulfill a contractual obligation.

The big problem with it...well, the big problem with it is that it's actually woefully unfunny. Large stretches of the book are just Cross suggesting that someone innocuous is actually suffering in some way, as an aside or as part of a portion of a list. If the words, "A Retarded Baby Gets AIDS," free of context or purpose, is inherently funny to you, then you are Cross's target audience and may God have mercy upon your soul. (Only, of course, as Cross never tires of bringing up, God doesn't exist and people who believe in Him are stupid and/or crazy. He doesn't make jokes about that--apparently just saying that religious people are stupid and/or crazy is enough work for one day.)

But the other, bigger problem with it is that it proffers no point of view beyond simply "David Cross is much smarter than everyone else." Cross obviously makes fun of people he thinks are foolish or hypocritical or morally bankrupt, because that's kind of what comedians do and what satire is--you expose the foibles of the pompous. But Cross makes no differentiation between, say, Catholic priests who molested innocent children and the system that shielded them, and the people at who gave his latest comedy CD a bad review. His negation is mindless and thoughtless, which makes it worthless.

Because all he does is point to things and say "That's stupid," there's no value to his genuine social commentary. Does he examine why it is that the Catholic Church rallies around its members and uses its institutional power to protect them? Does he find something meaningful to say about the idea that any institution, no matter how noble, eventually comes to be about holding on to its power and authority rather than its initial ideals? Nope. It's because they're religions, and religions are stupid. He doesn't critique things, merely criticize them.

And like all emotional thirteen-year-olds, he's more interested in finding a weakness he can use to attack the people he disagrees with than in holding any kind of an intellectual or moral philosophy of his own. He's perfectly willing to go after Larry the Cable Guy as "homophobic", because he doesn't like Larry the Cable Guy and he knows that homophobia is a charge you can successfully level at someone. But he's also willing to do an extended multiple-page gag about Jim Belushi dressing up as a woman and giving blowjobs in a truckstop restroom, because homosexuality is nothing to be ashamed of unless you're using it to humiliate a comedian you find annoying. The book is filled with these little hypocrisies and petty jabs...interspersed, of course, with Cross's insistence that he's not at all bitter about anything in his life, and that anyone who thinks he's bitter or angry about anything just doesn't understand how calmly he takes the endless frustrations of dealing with all the stupid people who aren't him.

Other than that, the book is mostly weak and unfunny nonsensical asides, a few of which land with less than a dull thud than others but none of which can struggle to life under the endless burden of having to co-exist with Cross's angry whinging. If you really like David Cross, do both him and yourself a favor and pretend this book never existed. All it can do is lower your opinion of him.

Monday, September 12, 2016

A Brief Word From the Ministry of Magic

Dear Wizards and Witches of the Ministry of Magic,

We are aware that security is always paramount in the minds of all those who work in these august halls--our duty is to work with those aspects of magic that are forbidden, after all, and the forbidden always has its own allure. So we appreciate that everyone is doing their best to secure unauthorized Dark Magic spells, magical items, and curiosities away from those who would abuse them.

Nonetheless, we wish to take a moment to discuss the topic of security. After a few recent high-profile breaches, we would like to offer a few helpful suggestions that might help make forbidden magical items that can...purely hypothetically speaking...alter the course of history or undo all our hard-fought struggles against the Dark Lord Voldemort...even more secure!

1) Information security is everyone's responsibility. Between the use of Invisibility Cloaks, Polyjuice Potions and other disguises, one must always be aware of the possibility of someone using "social engineering" to try to determine the location of forbidden magic. Avoid openly discussing the location of hidden items, and never share details on accessing these items with someone, no matter how well you know them, without first confirming their identity beyond a doubt. Remember, kisses are not personally identifying information!

2) A strong password is a safe password. We understand that items may need to be accessed for a higher purpose, and that magical barriers must therefore have a means of removing them in the event that it becomes necessary. When setting a password for your magical barrier, try not to use the names of family members or pets, as these can be easily guessed by intruders. Also try not to use phrases like "password", or your birthdate, as these are too common and can also be guessed. Also, if you do decide to use a cunning children's riddle answer as your password, do not put a "hint" in that is the riddle's question. This common mistake allows the item to be accessed by the clever thieves only, and frankly if unscrupulous people are going to have access to our magical items, we want them to at least be dumb enough to get caught.

Following these two guidelines will drastically reduce the number of times a certain wizard with a minor facial disfigurement has to save the world (please refer to our workplace sign, "It Has Been 9 Days Since Harry Potter Has Had To Bear the Great Burden of Heroism On Behalf Of Wizardkind"). And remember, if it wouldn't safeguard a computer, it won't safeguard the most dangerous magical item ever created. Thank you!

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Review: Prophecy

I'm going to break my habit of curling up into a little ball and waiting for the Presidential election season to be over to review a book I read recently, David Seltzer's 'Prophecy'. It's an adaptation of the screenplay he wrote that was turned into a 1979 movie directed by John Frankenheimer, and it says a lot about both movie and book that the term "prophecy" doesn't refer to anything within the story--Seltzer is saying that the story, itself, is a prophecy of what will happen if we don't stop polluting.

Which is odd, because the primary consequence appears to be "angry deformed 15-foot tall bears will come and kill us all", and I'm reasonably certain he's kind of winging that one.

To be honest, if he'd simply skipped the "deformed bear" angle and come at it as a straight-up ecodrama, it probably would have been a lot more effective. It's about a doctor who works in the inner-city and is frustrated by his inability to make a difference due to the entrenched power structures keeping black people in poverty, and his wife who's dealing with a pregnancy that she knows he won't want but that she also knows she can't get rid of. The husband gets an offer to do an environmental study for the EPA, and decides that maybe he can do something for the environment that he couldn't do for the inhabitants of Washington's slums, and his wife goes along hoping to find a good time to tell him about the baby.

But what he walks into is a powder-keg, as the results of the environmental study will determine whether the local paper mill gets to keep operating in the face of entrenched (and increasingly militant) opposition from the local Native American population. The paper company is doing everything short of bribing him to give a good result, while the Native Americans are distrustful of yet another well-meaning white man who says he's there to help. Meanwhile, people and animals are sickening, dying, and being born horribly deformed due to contamination of the watershed with mercury. (Nothing involving mutant bears is quite as horrifying as seeing the pregnant woman tuck into some freshly-caught fish.)

This is all a bit preachy, and it's all filtered through an oh-so-70s level of racial and environmental consciousness (the Native Americans are referred to as "Indians" and given an overlay of noble savage mentality, the questions about abortion are treated with a lot of patriarchal condescension even though the wife's right to choose is ultimately upheld) but then there's this giant bear lumbering through things. It feels like Seltzer is dangling the bear like a bright shiny object whenever the story gets too boringly didactic, as if to say, "Hey, I know you don't have the attention span for all this boring political stuff, so here's a big deformed bear mauling some people for you!"

And that's fine as far as it goes--certainly, a lot of sci-fi stories use allegories to sharpen and intensify the emotions surrounding their central concepts. But the problem is that Seltzer uses "deformed bear attacks everyone" as his plot resolution, and you'd be amazed at how many problems a giant mutant bear doesn't solve in this world. The third act is really just a bunch of people running around getting attacked by a bear, and in the end I guess enough people are killed that things are better now but not really but maybe a little? It's all sort of dumped in the lap of the gods (and you'll be so totally surprised that one of the Native American characters thinks the bear is an "Indian legend" come to life to protect the wilderness), and I think that the ending becomes far less effective as a result.

It's weird to say that a monster story would have been more effective without the monster, but it's kind of true here. 'Prophecy' is, at heart, about people willing to leave the planet uninhabitable if it helps them make a few extra dollars. Next to that, even a very big bear isn't that scary.